Rightscon: a human rights/technology conference in Silicon Valley

Next week marks the inaugural Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference (AKA Rightscon) in San Francisco. This event will explore the role that technology plays in the expansion -- or elimination -- of human rights and the ways that technologists and high-tech firms can either help or harm humanity. In an age when American companies supply "deep packet inspection" technology to the Iranian government so that Iran's secret police can figure out whom to brutally murder (to cite just one example among many), this is an important question.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is dispatching several staffers to speak at the event, and they've provided a helpful guide to the more interesting sessions to keep an eye on.

Google, a Rightscon sponsor and participating organization, as well as a member of GNI, is just one example of a company that has done a lot of thinking on human rights: its YouTube platform has been instrumental in getting news out of Syria, thanks to a policy that allows violent content to remain available if intended for documentary or educational purposes. And just this week, Google expanded its use of encryption technology to default to SSL search on Google searches.

Twitter, whose General Counsel Alex MacGillivray will be among the keynote speakers at Rightscon, is another company that has taken human rights under consideration when designing its policies, particularly when it comes to free expression. Another rights-thinking company is Mozilla, whom the EFF has praised for its stance on privacy.

On the lists of attendees and sponsors, EFF also sees several companies about which we have grave concerns. A prime example is AT&T, which famously acted in tandem with the NSA to illegally spy on American citizens. Also amongst the participating companies is Comcast, against which the FCC issued an order (crediting EFF research) in 2008 to stop blocking peer-to-peer traffic. Skype is also on our list of companies of concern due to its surveillance capabilities. Skype is also one of several companies in attendance that has been ranked in EFF's Who Has Your Back? campaign (so far, the company has zero stars).

Notably absent from the list are the myriad Silicon Valley companies that provide censorship and surveillance capabilities to authoritarian regimes, among them Boeing's Narus, Cisco (sign our petition here), McAfee/Intel's SmartFilter, and H-P.


  1. Hey, how is it Narus’ or Cisco’s fault that they had a scheduling conflict between RightsCon and their pre-existing speaking engagement at PanoptiCon?

  2. I realize that this topic is extremely important either way, but, is it possible that US companies providing hostile regimes with technology might help us monitor and control those regimes? Wouldn’t they find a way to oppress their populations with or without our help?

    That being said, this conference looks rad! I wish I could be there!

    1. Jason: A laudable but utterly naive thought. We have no ability to ‘control’ China – the options for Cisco are “be a willing partner in brutal oppression” or “don’t, and make less money”.

      You are, of course, correct that they will find a way to oppress their population with or without our help. But that’s not an excuse for helping. The way they’d have found by themselves isn’t as effective, or they wouldn’t be paying Cisco so much to build a better one.

    2. You wouldn’t pay Cisco or Narus’ prices for oppression gear if you had the indigenous capability, especially in the case of China, where they would probably rather be buying Huawei…

  3. Rights abuses happen whenever there are capability asymmetries. Whenever one group or individual has more access to/or control over pretty much any ‘thing’ one can think of, that group or individual will eventually become abusive. Technology to me seems double-edged in this regard. From one side it tends to be democratising, giving capabilities to people who were previously too ‘small’ to have them. From the other side, the winner-take-all nature of a lot of technology leads to huge tech companies that *will* eventually act ‘evil-ly’ provided they keep their dominance for long enough.

    As for specific monitoring technologies such as deep packet inspection, the biggest thing to watch for is that access to them is not restricted to an elite few. I’m fine with the FBI deeply inspecting my packets, provided I get detailed notifications every time they do it and I can deeply inspect their packets back. Symmetric capability distribution allows for crowd-sourced policing of abuses.

  4. A look at the conference site failed to find any reference to identity management, in general, and biometrics, in particular. Identity management, implemented properly, would reduce the claimed need for the attacks upon dignity and privacy that we see at airports and public buildings. Identity management if implemented in a police state or corporate state fashion, will severely diminish liberty and privacy. 

    Does anyone know how and to what extent the conference will touch on this subject? If not, they are dropping the ball, big time.

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